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Homeland Security Research Develops

October 2003
By Maryann Lawlor
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Agency will examine revolutionary solutions while meeting today’s operational needs.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is opening the door to the private sector in its quest for innovative technologies to support ongoing operations and meet future requirements. Modeled after the U.S. Defense Department’s primary research and development arm, the new department’s parallel agency will be seeking solutions to challenges in the areas of biological and chemical agent detection, nuclear, radiological and high explosive attack deterrence, and information security.

With the approval of the fiscal year 2004 budget, the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), Washington, D.C., will begin funding targeted research and development activities proposed by industry and academia. The new agency, which was created through the 2002 Homeland Security Act that established the Department of Homeland Security, will jumpstart science and technology efforts that address critical needs. The goal is to accelerate technologies from the early through prototyping stages and into testing and deployment.

Patterned after the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), HSARPA will award grants, contracts and cooperative agreements for technologies that support three primary missions. One will be to design technical capabilities that meet the current operational needs for the Homeland Security Department and state and local responders. The majority of the organization’s funding will be dedicated to this area. Second, the agency will conduct rapid prototyping and commercial adaptation of technology. This mission focuses on industry-developed capabilities that need to be fine-tuned to address existing requirements. Finally, the group will create revolutionary technology options that will transform work in the first two mission areas.

Dr. Jane A. “Xan” Alexander, deputy director, HSARPA, explains that it is in this last area that HSARPA is most like DARPA. She served as DARPA’s deputy director for three years. “DARPA is the part of the Defense Department portfolio that is about revolutionary change. HSARPA’s mission is much broader than DARPA’s. DARPA is a portion of the Defense Department’s research and development infrastructure, whereas HSARPA is the external funding arm for the Department of Homeland Security’s technology needs,” she explains.

Despite the difference, the homeland security research and development agency will adopt some of DARPA’s business practices. Alexander explains that HSARPA will have a three-level organizational structure, similar to that found at DARPA. Directors will be at the top level, and office directors will occupy the second tier. Technical program managers, who will have both authority and responsibilities, will be the foundation of the organization. Late this summer, Alexander was searching for qualified personnel to fill the technical program manager billets in specific areas. She expects that the agency will have between 20 and 35 technical program managers in its initial stages.

HSARPA is one of four offices in the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate. To determine which technologies should be pursued, HSARPA will rely on input from one of the other offices within the directorate. Portfolio managers in the Office of Plans, Programs and Budgets already have been working with Homeland Security Department customers to identify the gaps in their operational capabilities and to assess how technology can help fill those gaps. They will analyze the type and severity of threats as well as explore how technology can mitigate the threat. This analysis will subsequently facilitate prioritizing the projects, help structure a budget and determine if solutions should be sought from within the department or from outside sources.

Solutions that will be pursued by the Homeland Security Department will be funneled to government laboratories through the Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of Research and Development. When it is determined that outside sources should be tapped, HSARPA will explore solutions from academia and industry, Alexander explains. The proposed fiscal year 2004 budget includes $1 billion for homeland security research and development, and HSARPA could receive more than half of those funds.

Portfolio managers already have been identifying specific technologies that the department’s customers want to pursue, and some requirements cut across different organizations, Alexander says. For example, detection of biological, chemical, nuclear and radiation agents and high explosives are a priority for most of the department’s customers. Cybersecurity also is a concern across the board. Additionally, HSARPA will be examining ways to gather, fuse and share information.

Some customers, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Secret Service, borders and transportation security, emergency preparedness and response, and information assessment infrastructure protection, have specific requirements. “That gives you some sense of the areas that are getting handed off to us,” Alexander says.

In the biological and chemical field, for example, HSARPA is interested in detection technologies that can determine if an agent is being smuggled into the United States inside a container as well as if it has been dispersed in an area. For nuclear weapon, radiation and high explosive threats, the agency is looking for solutions that prevent an event. Additionally, technologies are being sought that would help clean up and restore normalcy if an event occurs. These are some of the most crucial problems that must be addressed, but Alexander points out that the agency must concurrently meet conventional operational challenges.

Although some projects will be supervised and financed solely by HSARPA, the agency also is responsible for coordinating its activities with other research agencies and may team up with them for some programs, Alexander says. In addition, HSARPA is tasked with sponsoring homeland security technology demonstrations to foster cooperation among developers, vendors and acquisition personnel.

Advanced concept technology demonstrations are one method DARPA uses to move emerging technology solutions to the military services. Alexander explains that HSARPA will use a similar approach called the Domestic Demonstration and Application Program, or DDAP, a program already used for some government laboratory projects. The program involves field testing, spiral development and concept of operations development. HSARPA will conduct some of this work; however, the Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of Systems Engineering and Development will handle the vast majority of work in this area.

Alexander points out that the transition of revolutionary solutions to its customers will be easier through HSARPA than it is at DARPA. “When we do revolutionary work in HSARPA, we do it because we think it’s a game-changer, and we’re trying to see if it’s really feasible just like DARPA. But we’re going to be talking to portfolio managers all along saying, ‘We think this is possible, and we’re going to try to prove to you that it is possible.’ As soon as we get to the point of proving it’s possible, the portfolio managers are going to look it over and say, ‘I’m willing to wipe things out of the existing portfolio and stick it in, because it is a game-changer.’ So I can hang onto it until either the portfolio manager says, ‘I’ve got it. I’m willing to accept it into the second mission,’ which is the operational capabilities, or until we both understand why this is never going to happen, in which case we quit working on the project,” she says.

This system addresses some of the challenges that DARPA faces when it hands prototypes over to the services for production, Alexander explains. In the military environment, DARPA has a proven concept, but then the individual service must take over the program and get it into the field. Often, this process can take years, by which time either the technology is obsolete or the priorities have changed.

In addition, because HSARPA’s projects will be based on the operational needs identified by its customers, the agency will pursue only solutions to requirements that already have been established by the user, Alexander notes. For example, the agency is currently working with the Coast Guard on a maritime domain awareness project, and Coast Guard representatives are participating in the program.

This arrangement is not without challenges, she allows. The agency will have to maintain a revolutionary culture while, at the same time, working to meet customers’ current needs, she says.

HSARPA and DARPA differ in other ways. While the military trains as it will fight and fights as it trains, the Homeland Security Department must deal with emergencies by working with first responders who have widely varying equipment and training. The agencies’ research and development organizations reflect these differences, Alexander says.

Systems developed under HSARPA also will have to meet different criteria. The Defense Department’s guideline for new systems is performance at a reasonable cost, but for HSARPA affordability will be a driving metric. “If I let the cost for a system get too high, I might as well set all the other performance parameters to zero, because there is no performance if you can’t afford to buy it,” she states.

To fulfill its missions, the agency will be engaging industry in several ways. First, it will set up a Small Business Innovation Research program. Current regulations mandate how this program will be run. In addition, HSARPA will publish solicitations, and all companies, regardless of size, will be invited to submit proposals. Alexander likes DARPA’s approach of requesting white papers prior to the actual proposal presentation; however, she admits that receiving hundreds of white papers could be a logistical problem. Consequently, the process will be a learning experience.

As the agency’s staff increases, companies will be invited to contact technical program managers who will share information about upcoming solicitations. Alexander warns against sending the agency unsolicited proposals. The department’s customers have identified their needs and portfolio managers have prioritized requirements, so companies may invest a lot of time in developing a proposal that does not match the demand. However, Alexander envisions that, at some point in the future, internal processes will be put into place to handle revolutionary ideas and solutions.

The urgency of today’s security needs in some way influences the agency’s strategy with regard to the technologies it is seeking. Although HSARPA is interested in pursuing solutions that can be employed immediately, Alexander’s vision for HSARPA’s work includes examining how to evolve those technologies in the near future as well as determining long-term needs. “It’s not fair to characterize the strategy as only near-term. But we’re certainly not going to have the attitude that if everything pays off in 10 years, you should be happy,” she explains.

The Bio-Watch system is one example of this type of evolutionary approach, Alexander says. Today, air sample collection devices have been installed in areas in several U.S. cities, and deployment of this equipment immediately addresses the issue of biological agent monitoring. However, the current procedure involves personnel driving around to each location everyday to collect air filters and delivering them to laboratories for analysis, which is very time-consuming. To improve this process, collection boxes could be designed to analyze the air samples, and the results could be transmitted to a monitoring center. This would be a mid-term solution. But Alexander adds that researchers must think about a systems approach that would allow monitoring in a much broader area and be a long-term solution. She reveals that work is ongoing at all three levels today.

Alexander is excited about being on the ground floor of a new organization, especially one with such an important mission. “In a lot of ways, HSARPA is an experiment. It’s a new culture. How do you put together revolutionary and evolutionary work? How do you support this set of users’ needs? How do you interact with industry and academia to get the best out of them for this kind of work? That’s exciting to me,” she says.